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1 ..^i 



12 DECEMBER 1991 



















Roman Catholic attitudes toward Martin Luther underwent a 

metamorphosis in the twentieth century. For over four hundred years, 

Catholic scholars depicted the Reformer as a heretical schismatic. 

Exsurqe Domine , the papal bull of excommunication issued by Leo X on 

June 15, 1520, set the tone for future Catholic biographers of the 


Arise, Lord, and judge thy cause. A wild boar has 
invaded thy vineyard. We can scarcely express our grief 
over the ancient heresies which have been revived . . . 
Anyone who presumes to infringe our excommunication and 
anathema will stand under the wrath of Almighty God and 
of the apostles Peter and Paul.i 

The Pope saw Luther as the "son of iniquity" who "perverts the faith, 

seduces the simple, and relaxes the bonds of obedience, continence, 

and humility. "2 Although Exsurqe Domine remains an official 

pronouncement. Catholic historians began a significant re-evaluation 

of the Reformer in this century. The ecumenical movement and the 

pronouncements of Vatican II paved the way for Catholics to take 

Luther and his reformation seriously. Far from condemning him and 

slandering his character, some contemporary Catholics actually 

suggested canonizing the former Augustinian monk as a basic step 

toward healing the sixteenth century schism. ^ 

This paper attempts to survey the major Roman Catholic 

biographies and scholarly essays written about Luther between 1550 

and 1965. It seeks to demonstrate how Catholic attitudes toward the 

Reformer have changed, especially in the twentieth century. The 

paper primarily focuses upon literature produced by German scholars. 



The first major assault leveled at Luther by Catholic 
scholarship came only three years after his death. In 1549 John 
Dobendeck, better known as Cochlaeus, published his Commentaria on 
the life of Martin Luther.* 

Formerly a humanist sympathetic with the reform effort, 
Cochlaeus turned against Luther and set out to discredit his movement 
and defame his memory. In a bitter and slanderous attack, Cochlaeus 
used rumor to discredit the Reformer's character. The author argued 
that Luther, as an Augustinian monk, was jealous of the lucrative 
indulgence trade enjoyed by Tetzel and the Dominicans. Hence the 
quarrel over indulgences had no theological or moral foundation 
because it was based upon Luther's greed. ^ in addition to being 
jealous, greedy, and quarrelsome, Luther was also incredibly immoral. 

At the age of fifteen he indulged in illicit sex with his 
benefactress, Frau cotta zu Eisenach. ^ As a young Augustinian monk, 
he lived in concubinage with three nuns, during which time he 
allegedly contracted venereal disease.^ For Cochlaeus, Luther's 
conception was the fruit of a union between Satan and Luther's mother 

who later regretted not having murdered him in the cradle.^ Thus 
the leader of the Protestant Reformation was the child of Satan. 
Upon Luther's death, his "Father" appears to drag him off to hell.^ 

This picture would be humorous if not for the fact that 
Catholic historians relied heavily upon Cochlaeus' Commentaria as a 


primary source for scholarly study well into the twentieth century. 
Although the work compiled and preserved an interesting body of 
sixteenth century literature, the author ignored accounts of Luther 
as told by Melanchthon or other Protestants close to the Reformer. 
The Commentaria was a collection of unreliable stories that depicted 
Luther as an immoral demon designed to dissuade the faithful from 
joining his movement. The work set a polemical standard and provided 
a ready resource for Catholic historians. 

Following the lead of Cochlaeus, John Pistorius published his 
Anatomiae Lutheri from Cologne in 1595.''° Pistorius was a physician 
and counsellor to the Margrave of Baden. Belonging to the second 
generation of the Reformation, he was a former Calvinist who became a 
staunch supporter of the Catholic faith. Claiming to have read 
Luther's complete works three times, Pistorius reflected his medical 
background by performing a dissection of Luther's personality. Seven 
Devils, including the Spirits of Whordom, Blasphemy, and Lewdness, 
possessed the Reformer.'' ^ Pistorius subdivided each of these three 
Spirits, in imitation of the Koran, into seven sections or "Alyoars" 
in an attempt to equate Luther with pagan i nf idel i ty , '' 2 
Additionally, Luther was plagued by the Evil Spirits of Error, 
Insolence, Pride, and Fraudulence. ^ 3 jp a five-hundred page 
discussion, the author assembled a list of quotes designed to portray 
Luther as a demonic infidel. Pistorius' use of quotes was a good 
example of what happens when one reads the works of an opponent for 
the sole purpose of gathering polemical ammunition.''* 

The writing of the Jesuit Conrad Vetter represented the 
culmination of this sixteenth century polemical attack. Born at 


Engen in 1547, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1576 and became an 
active writer and preacher near Munich. He preached several years at 
Ratisbon, where many Lutherans converted to Catholicism under his 
ministry. IS Before his death in 1622, Vetter wrote hundreds of books 
and popular tracts aimed at discrediting Luther and Protestantism. 
Scheid, writing in the 1912 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, 
said, "Vetter used all the coarseness of which the Swabian tongue is 
capable to disparage Luther; so that involuntarily Luther's similar 
style is recalled.'""^ 

Vetter, along with Cochlaeus and Pistorius, refused to consider 
the possibility that anything good might exist in Luther. They 
believed it appropriate to deal harshly with one who had maliciously 
torn the Church asunder and led millions astray through heretical 
teachings. It was the sole purpose of their writings to depict 
Luther as the personification of evil, the adversary of the Church, 
and the enemy of truth. 

The Catholic attacks against Luther continued in the eighteenth 
century with the works of John Nikolaus Weislinger, a parish priest 
at Waldulm. Weislinger studied philosophy at the University of 
Heidelberg beginning in 1713. After graduation, he prepared for 
ordination as a priest under the direction of Jesuits at Strasburg.^^ 
His most famous work was the slanderous pamphlet "Friss Vogel order 
stirb!" [There is no choice!], published at Strasburg in 1723. He 
wrote his argument in coarse and vulgar language. Weislinger wrote 


other polemical treatises, and his works were read throughout 
southern Germany. His work enjoyed popular appeal and underwent 
several printings. 

Mid-century brought the publication of a two volume work 
intended to expose the immorality of Luther and his wife, Catherine 
von Bora. In 1774 Eusebius Englehard published Lucefer 
Wi ttenberqenis. or the Morning star of Wittenberg; that is the 
complete life of Catherine von Bora, the presumed wife of Dr. Martin 
Luther, out of his dirty tabletalk. spirited epistles, and other rare 
documents in which all her apparent virtues, invented achievements, 
fake appearances, and miserable wonderworks by the side of the whole 
canonization process, are related by her husband during her 
lifetime. ■'8 This lengthy and vivid title was itself a sufficient 
commentary on the contents of the book. As the title suggested, 
Catherine and Martin appeared as something less than outstanding 
examples of Christian virtue. 

The nineteenth century brought a somewhat more moderate 
evaluation. The influence of Leopold von Ranke upon German 
historians brought a more objective methodology to historical 
inquiry. John Adam Mohler, a brilliant professor of history at the 
University of Tubingen and later at Munich, published in 1832 a book 
entitled Symbol i k . '' ^ The work was a critique of Luther's style that 
exhibits an objectivity heretofore unknown in past Catholic 
studies. 20 Although Mohler accused Luther of Manichaeism, the book 
marked a transition in methodology and a slight improvement in 
tone. 21 Faulkner said that Mohler's book introduced a "new era" in 
German Roman Catholic studies of Luther, and that his successors 


"never descended to the depths of their predecessors. "^ 2 

Mohler's successor and sometimes rival, Johannes Joseph Ignaz 
von Dollinger, represented a partial return to the extreme polemical 
style of Cochlaeus and Pistorious. Between 1846 and 1848, he 
published three volumes entitled, Die Reformation . ^3 a historian of 
the Tubingen School, Dollinger believed that Protestantism, 
Liberalism, and Rationalism represented breaks with the traditional 
past. He attacked von Ranke and other Protestant historians, 
stressing the importance of religious tradition. he used terms like 
"organic growth" and "consistent development" to express his theory 
of Church History. In Die Reformation , he described what he believed 
to be the disastrous effects of Luther's doctrine of Justification by 
Faith. The Reformation destroyed the unity and authority of Latin 
Christendom, and became the seed-bed of rational phi losophy . 2 * • 

He collected a body of quotations about the Reformation made by 
both Protestant and Catholics and strung them together creating an 
incriminating case against Protestantism. He gathered statements 
made by Luther about the inability of Reformers to agree and 
cooperate together. These statements came from Luther's sermons, 
table talk, and letters. This supposed self-incriminating evidence 
became "proof" that the Reformer himself regretted the break with 
Rome. 25 Although Luther did speak frankly and sometimes tactlessly 
about the failures of the Reformation, he remained convinced until 
the end of his life that reform was both right and necessary. ^e 
Dollinger forgot that it was the task of the historian to critically 
evaluate the context as well as the content of quotes used as 
evidence. a vocal critic of growing papal claims to power in the 


second half of the nineteenth century, Dollinger's attitude toward 
Luther mellowed in later life, particularly after his excommunication 
in 1871 .27 

John Janssen, a German catholic historian and Professor of 
History at the Frankfurt Gymnasium, published a massive work 
entitled, Geschichte des deustchen Volkes in eight volumes. 28 The 
author portrayed the late Medieval period as a golden age while 
depicting the Reformation as a period of decline. Janseen saw the 
Medieval Church as a dynamic institution aware of its internal 
weaknesses. Events in Germany shattered its own attempts at 
self-reformation .29 Moreover, the Reformation was a product of 
Luther's diseased character, his megalomania and his low moral 
stature. 2° Janssen attributed many of Germany's subsequent political 
and social problems to the destructive forces released by Luther and 
Protestantism. 3 1 

At the close of the nineteenth century, no Catholic historian 
had attempted to treat Luther fairly, with the possible exception of 
John Mohler. The sixteenth and seventeenth century works, 
represented by Cochlaeus, Pistorius, and Vetter, severed only to arm 
eighteenth and nineteenth century writers with a massive amount of 
polemical source material. The attack of Do! linger, Janssen, and 
others were just as malicious as those of earlier writers. Rather 
than trying to understand the religious motives behind his actions, 
Catholic historians attacked him as a heretical schismatic who 
destroyed the unity of the Church. Unfortunately, this prevailing 
attitude remained dominate in Catholicism until well into the 
twentieth century. 



The dawning of the twentieth century brought the what some 
consider to be the most able attack leveled against Luther since the 
sixteenth century. Father Heinrich Seuse Denifle published an 
eight-hundred-sixty page work at Manz in 1904 entitled, Luther und 
Luthertum .32 jhe author was a Tyrolean Dominican and subarchivist at 
the Vatican Library. Denifle had a good reputation in scholarly 
circles, having published several works on fourteenth century 
mysticisrr. As associate to the General of the Dominican Order, he 
traveled across Europe searching for manuscripts to be included in a 
new edition of the works of Thomas Aquinas. In 1885 he helped 
compile the Archive for Literature and Church History of the Middle 
Ages, an important resource for the study of Medieval Church History. 

Luther und Luthertum was not a biography in the traditional 

sense but rather a collection of articles that examine Luther's 

understanding of Christian doctrine. ^3 jhe author limited himself to 

an exhaustive study of primary source material and had at his 

disposal Luther's unpublished lectures on Romans. Reflecting upon 

his work Denifle declared "My sole source for the study of Luther was 

Luther. 3* This was an improvement in methodology. However, Denifle 

made clear his position on Luther and the Reformation when he wrote: 

Once admit that Protestantism and Catholicism are two 
equally authorized religious convictions which represent 
at the most two different aspects of the Christian life, 
then if one of the sides is heretical, so is the other. ^s 

What caused the Reformation? Denifle answered this question 

in terms of Luther's ignorance of theology, immoral disposition, and 
his doctrine of Justification by Faith. 3^ Luther exemplified a 
profound ignorance of Catholic theology, especially as expressed in 
Scholastic Thomism. When John Eck and other Catholic scholars 
pointed this out, Luther was to proud to receive instruction, admit 
his error, and submit to the authority of the Church. Because he was 
an theological ignoramus, he consistently misquoted Augustine, the 
Rhineland Mystics, and other ancient and contemporary writers. 
Moreover, he consistently misquoted Scripture and misrepresented the 
teachings and practices of the Church in order to defend his 
ridiculous doctrines. ^^ Luther was the victim of William of Occam's 
Nominalism, and he exhibited no appreciation for Scholasticism. ^a 
Far from contributing anything new or rediscovering anything of 
significance from the past, Luther demonstrated a profound disregard 
for historical theology. 

Another key factor in Denifle's understanding of the Reformation 
was Luther's basic immorality. He was a man of the gutter, engaging 
in all manner of indecent language and obscene vul gari ties.^ s The 
author made the most of Luther's marriage, charging that the only 
motive for the union was lust. Where Pistorius saw Luther's death as 
the result of venereal disease, Denifle was sure that he died of 
alcohol ism. " ° Disguised as scientific objectivity, he accused the 
Reformer of pornography, vice, debauchery, drunkenness and seduction. 
Drawn up as a list of indictments, these charges culminated in a 
paragraph which Denifle entitled "The Christian Character of 
Luther, "''i Several times throughout his work, the author printed in 
bold type the indignant question, "Luther, is nothing sacred for 


you? "4 2 

Finally, Luther's doctrine of Justification by Faith was 

primarily responsible for the catastrophic division of the Church. 

Because he was a thoroughly licentious person, Justification by faith 

became a cover-up for Luther's own sins.*^ jhe doctrine was an 

invention used to excuse his exceptional sensuality. Incredibly, the 

author absolutely ignores the Reformer's religious struggle prior to 

1520. Perhaps Faulkner has best summed up Demfle's caricature of 


. . . The only trouble with Luther was his lust, his sin, 
and that to be free to sin . . .he broke from the 
Church, he repudiated his vows as a monk, he made up this 
doctrine of salvation by faith, which was not salvation 
from sin, but rest in sin; that it represented no inner 
cleansing, but an artificial covering of a life to be 
given over to i ndulgence. ^ ^ 

Thus, Luther's reform effort was merely a hypocritical mask designed 

to hide his depravity. 

It soon became apparent that Demfle's attempted character 
assassination could only be taken seriously by the most 
anti-Protestant Catholic historians. The Church needed a successor 
who could discredit Luther in a more subtle tone. The Jesuit 
Professor at the University of Innsbruck, Hartman Grisar, took it 
upon himself to revise the Denifle thesis. Between 1911-12 he 
published three volumes, simply titled Luther, spanning more than two 
thousand pages. ^^ 

Unlike Demfle, who saw Luther as a demon to be exorcised, 
Grisar saw him as a pitiful psychopath who needed medical treatment. 
Luther was physically, mentally, and spiritually ill. He suffered 
from bad heredity because his father was a drunkard and his mother 


melanchol Ic.'*^ This accounted for his "epileptic deposition," but 

failed to explain the gossip about his suffering from syphilis.*^ 

Luther, the maladjusted neurotic, suffered an incurable emotional 

shock when, at age twenty-two, she was almost struck by lightning 

near Stotternheim. ■♦ ^ The thunderstorm experience confused and 

complicated his already maladjusted personality. He entered the 

monastery as a neurotic, and tragically ended up as a hopeless 

psychopath.* ^ 

Whatever Protestants affirmed about Luther, Grisar rejected. He 

denied that Justification by Faith was the result of an inward 

conversion experience. He also rejected the interpretation that 

Luther's religious transformation resulted from his dissatisfaction 

with monastic life or from his failure to find peace with God through 

good works. 50 Furthermore, he denied the Reformer's struggle with 

the Church arose out of the indulgence controversy. The author 

summed up his understanding of Luther's break with Rome in the 

following passage: 

The real origin of Luther's teaching must be sought in 
the fundamental principle which governed him . . . This 
was his unfavorable estimate of good works and of any 
effort, natural or supernatural, on the part of man.^i 

Gnsar's approach was more subtle than Denifle's violent 

assault, although both shared the common objective of destroying 

Luther's religious credi bi 1 i ty . ^ 2 jo his credit, Grisar refused to 

portray the Reformer as a wholesale liar and an immoral reprobate. 

He said "the only arguments on which these assertions of great inward 

corruption could be stated, viz. actual texts and facts capable of 

convincing anyone . . . simply are not forthcoming . ^ 3 Nevertheless, 

1 1 

Grisar wrote of the Protestant Reformation when he wrote, "Luther is 
finished and the number of those few who really confess his doctrine 
and keep' his doctrine are noticeably decreasing. "^ 4 

Catholic scholarship remained relatively unchanged until the 
last months of World War I. The genesis of a more progressive 
interpretation of the Reformer and his word began with an article in 
the periodical Hochl an d , entitled "Martin Luthers religiose 
Psyche. "55 j^e author was frances Kief 1 , Professor of Theology at 
the University of Wurzburg. He created a more favorable climate for 
ecumenical study by conceding that Luther was a truly religious 
person. Luther's effort to reform the Church proceeded from 
religious motives. Kiefl wrote, "the primary religious motivation in 
Luther, which has set its mark on the Reformation for centuries, is 
indelibly religious. ^e 

Kiefl took issue with Denifle's thesis at two points. First, 
Luther's doctrine of Justification by Faith was no basis for 
excommunication from the Church (p. 15). The proclamation of this 
belief did not signal a moral regression by the Reformer because the 
ultimate result of faith was good works (p. 16). Thus, Luther's 
theology did not result from his need to justify his own immorality. 
Second, Kiefl maintained that Luther was not ignorant of Catholic 
theology, but displayed a sound knowledge of orthodox doctrine. 
Kiefl argued that Luther demonstrated a better understanding of 
Catholic dogma than Erasmus and other humanists (pp. 20-21). 

Kiefl also criticized Grisar's interpretation. He took the 
psychopathic personality attributed to Luther and reinterpreted it in 
terms of religious experience. ^ 7 Although Luther went to far with 


his emphasis on the Omnipotence of God and limited human freedom, he 
was nevertheless an authentic reformer. 

Following this landmark development in Catholic historiography, 
twelve years passed before Alfred von Martin edited a collection of 
essays by both Catholic and Protestant theologians entitled, Luther 
in okumenischer Sicht .^^ Three of those essays bore a particular 
relevance to this discussion. 

Sabastian Merkle in his article, "Gutes an Luther und Ubles an 
seinen Tadlern,"^^ urged Catholic historians to refrain from 
slandering Luther and to recognize the religious motives behind his 
reformation (p. 11). Merkle, disputing Janssen's thesis, argued the 
Church did indeed suffer from moral corruption and needed reform. If 
this were not the case, wrote Merkle, then Luther "would have to 
appear as the greatest miracle-worker in history, if he had brought 
about the mass exodus from a thriving Church at the high point of 
achieving its task."^° 

John Albani, in an article entitled, "Hat Luther mit der Kirchen 
gebrochen? Brach die Kirche mit ihm?" asked a perceptive question 
fundamental to understanding the Reformation. ^ i He answered by 
saying that Luther did not break with the Church, but with the 
priesthood, and only then after the priesthood had broken with him 
(p. 72). Luther erred in his estimation that the Catholic hierarchy 
was dispensable, but correct in his observation that the individual 
soul received too little attention in Church dogma (p. 71). A third 
essay, written by Anton Fischer, entitled "Was der betende Luther der 
ganzen Christenheit zu sagen hat."^^ Fischer maintained the key to 
understanding Luther lay in the Reformer's prayer life. Luther based 


his prayers upon Scripture (p. 189). Fischer called attention to the 

fact that Luther placed God the Father in the center of the 

Christian's prayer life (p. 194). The author concluded this 

sympathetic treatment with the following ecumenical plea: 

The fighting Luther wounds; the praying Luther heals! 
The fighting Luther divides, the praying Luther unites! 
Luther the fighter belongs to the past; Luther the man of 
prayer - may his mission begin in the present!^^ 

The historian Hubert Jedin from the University of Breslau 
continued this line of thought. In 1931 he published Die Erforschung 
der kirchlichen Reformationqeschichte seit 1876 . s" He criticized 
Denifle and Grisar, and pointed out that few Catholic historians 
still held to Denifle's view of Luther's immoral character. ^s 
Following Kiefl, he saw Luther as a truly religious person. ^e 
Moreover, he wrote that if Catholics were to understand Luther's 
thought and motives they must disregard the Church's traditional 
concept of the Reformer. 

Kiefl and other scholars of the early twentieth century laid the 
foundation for a major rei nterpretation of Luther and the Protestant 
Reformation. In 1939-40, Joseph Lortz published Die Reformation in 
Deutschland .67 By choosing to use the term "Reformation" in the 
title, Lortz recognized the legitimacy of Luther's movement. 
Formerly, Catholic writers refused to use this term, preferring the 
words "apostasy" or "schism" to describe events. ^^ The study 
involved almost nine hundred pages dealing with a broad range of 
religious events. The work was an extended biography with Luther as 
its central point of focus. 

Lortz saw the Church as primarily responsible for the sixteenth 


century schism (I. pp. 3-40. The Church was already in a state of 

fragmentation before the Reformation began. The Avignon Papacy and 

the Great Schism produced a feeling of cynicism that pervaded the 

Church. The Papacy's inability to deal with the Turkish threat or 

the Bohemian heretics further complicated the problem, as did the 

problem of growing Nationalism in Western Europe (I. pp. 8-9). 

Within this context of social ferment, Lortz attempted to analyze and 

understand Luther. 

He saw the influence of Occamism upon Luther as fundamental to 

understanding the Reformation (I. pp. 195-201). Occamism taught that 

God was arbitrary in his dealings with man. Paradoxically, it placed 

a heavy emphasis upon man's role in the process of salvation. 

Luther's concept of sola gratia was a reaction against this dogma (I. 

p. 196). Lortz, however, denies that Occamism was within the 

traditional teaching of the Church. He wrote: 

The Occamist system is radically uncatholic. It is easy 
to see what a colossal burden it was bound to lay upon 
the over-anxious Luther struggling to feel free from sin 
(I. p. 196) . 

Luther revolted against Occamist tendencies that crept into the late 
Medieval Church, Luther was not a heretic. He attacked heresy 
within the Church. ^^ Thus, the Reformation occurred as the result of 
a theological misunderstanding between Luther and the Church 

Humanism was another important influence upon Luther. Humanism 
tends to focus upon man as the primary actor in the cosmic order (I. 
p. 139). In light of this influence, Luther emphasized individual 
religious experience and held the Roman priestly hierarchy in 


contempt. Lortz refused to characterize Luther as a reprobate whose 
theology resulted from an uncontrollable urge to sin. Lortz shifted 
the elements of causation from the person of Luther to the historical 
milieu of the late Medieval period. 

However, Luther did not escape criticism in Lortz's treatment. 
He argued that Luther's chief fault lay in his subjective approach to 
religion (I. pp. 183-84); also pp. 204-07). Because he interpreted 
Scripture in terms of individual needs, he was unable to comprehend 
the totality of scriptural revelation. His doctrines of 
Justification by Faith and the Priesthood of the Believer eventually 
fragmented the Church he sought to reform (I. pp. 443-44). Unlike 
past scholars, Lortz measured his criticism and refused to resort to 
polemical rhetoric. 

Although the author praised and criticized the Reformer, he book 
stood as a landmark work for two basic reasons. First, it was a 
comprehensive, scholarly study by a major Catholic historian that 
examined Luther and the Reformation in detail. Second, it 
represented an honest effort to understand Luther's personality, 
motivations, and movement in a historical context. Die Reformation 
in Deutschland set the stage for meaningful dialogue between 
Protestants and Catholics. 

Three years after the release of Lortz's book, Adolf Herte 
published a three volume work entitled D as katholische Lutherbild in 
Ba nn der Lutherkommentare des Cochlaus .^" In over a thousand pages, 
Herte demonstrated that biographers relied too heavily on the work of 
Cochlaeus (I. pp. i-ii). He called special attention to the 
dependency of Denifle and Grisar upon Cochlaeus (II. pp. 328-42; op. 


351-67). He exposed the writings of Cochlaeus as a biased and 
hateful account intended to destroy Luther's reputation. His work 
dealt a severe blow to those who insisted on the traditional 
interpretation of the Reformer. 

In 1947 John Hessen, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the 
University of Cologne, carried the story of re-evaluation a step 
further with the publication of L uther in katholisch^r .^mht ^^ jhis 
small work of seventy pages dealt with Luther's theology. Hessen 
survived the various interpretations of Luther, taking into account 
the positions of Denifle, Lortz and others (pp. 11-18). He disputed 
Lortz's position that Luther's most serious error was subjectivism. 
For Hessen, Luther's religious experience proceeded from Christ as 
revealed in Scripture. This scriptural foundation was the objective 
basis for Luther's conversion and subsequent theology (pp. 21-24). 
Thus, there was no real connection between Luther's thought and 
modern subjectivism or individualism. Hessen agreed with Lortz that 
the Church was in need of reform in the early sixteenth century. 
In what IS perhaps the most favorable treatment of Luther's 
religious personality by a Catholic scholar, Hessen commends him for 
preaching the Gospel (pp. 67-68). Luther was a man committed to 
prayer and sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (pp. 
68-69). For Hessen, an understanding of both the Reformer and the 
Reformation was key to successful ecumenical discussion. ^ 2 

In 1960, Father Thomas Sartory delivered a series of radio 
messages broadcast across southern Germany to a large Catholic 
audience. In four separate messages, he examined Luther from a 
psychological, historical, theological, and ecumenical perspective. 


He published these addresses in 1961 under the title, "Martin Luther 
in katholischer Sicht" and appeared in the Catholic periodical Una 
Sancta .73 

Psychalogical ly , Sartory rejected the psychopathic 
interpretation of Grisar along with the vulgar assessments of 
Cochlaeus and Denifle. He concluded that anyone who simultaneously 
struggled with the Holiness of God and the sinfulness of man would 
experience the same emotional characteristics displayed by Luther. 
In the face of an "angry and merciful God," there was little wonder 
that Luther exhibited "cracks and breaks" in his personality.'^" He 
argued that one must take into account the reality of sin and the 
Wrath of God in any psychoanalysis of Luther, and that the intensity 
and influence of these were difficulty to measure (p. 42). 

Historically, Sartory mentioned the negative influence of 
Cochlaeus and the noble attempt of Adolph Herte to reveal Catholic 
scholars' dependence on the Commentaria . Moreover, he discussed the 
positive contributions of Joseph Lortz and others (p. 43). He 
credited Jedin for pointing out that Catholic leaders at the Council 
of Trent did not "close the door to conversation" with Protestants, 
but intentionally left the option open for future dialogue by not 
formally condemning the Reformer. ''^ 

Theologically, man and his personal relationship to God was 
Luther's primary concern. Sartory wrote that Luther would "turn over 
in his grave," -if he were to hear the accusations that he was the 
proponent of a "subjectivism or a religion of conscience" that 
taught a moral autonomy. ''^ For Luther, the objective standard that 
controlled man's conscience was not the Church but the Scriptures. 


Sartory went on to show how the doctrine of Justification by Faith 
proceeded from Luther's view of Scripture (p. 48). He believed that 
Luther stressed the doctrine of Justification by Faith to the 
exclusion of equally important doctrines such as the Resurrection, 
and the Lordship of Christ (p. 50). 

Ending the article with a discussion of Luther viewed from an 
ecumenical perspective, Sartory saw Luther as a pastoral figure that 
both Protestants and Catholics could claim. The ecumenical Luther 
was a "spiritual man" who preached the Bible with power, expressed 
worship through hymns, and encountered God through prayer (p. 52). 
He concluded with an appeal for all Catholics to hear Luther's 
message as it it related to the Gospel so that they might share the 
Reformer's passionate love for God (p. 54). 


From the mid-sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. 
Catholic historians depicted Martin Luther as the enemy of the 
Church. The works of sixteenth and seventeenth century writers 
reflected the anathema against Luther pronounced by Leo X in 1520. 
Cochlaeus' Commentaria represented a collection of half-truths, 
fables, and lies that characterized the Reformer as demonic heretic. 
Pistorius built upon this tradition, arranging Luther's own words in 
an attempt to discredit him. These writers set the polemical tone 
for Catholic scholarship well into the twentieth century. 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Heinrich Denifle and 
Hartmann Grisar represented the Mendicant Orders contribution to the 
crusade against Luther. Using the tools of the modern historical 


method, these able scholars developed their related themes of 
immorality and insanity. They based their multivolume accounts on 
exhaustive research from primary sources. However, their inability 
to see Luther as anything less than a heretic prevented a fair 
appraisal of the Reformer and his work. 

The portrait of Luther-the-reprobate and Luther-the-maniac began 
to change toward the end of World War I. A small group of German 
Catholics began a reappraisal that eventually revolutionized the 
Church's understanding of Luther and the Protestant Reformation. In 
1917 Frances Kiefl openly questioned Denifle and Grisar, and four 
hundred years of traditional Catholic interpretation. He boldly 
affirmed that Luther was a homo rel i gious . More than a decade later, 
Sabastian Merkel , Anton Fischer, and John Albani developed Kiefl 's 
thesis. Merkel admitted that the sixteenth century Church needed 
reform. Fischer emphasized Luther's prayer life. Albani shifted the 
primary responsibility for the schism from Luther to the Catholic 
Church, claiming the Church first broke with Luther. As the decade 
of the 1930 approached, a new openness to Luther studies gained 
momentum within the Church. 

The pivotal figure on the twentieth century reappraisal was 
Joseph Lortz. His Reformation in Germany , published in 1939-40, 
represented a major rei nterpretation by a prominent Catholic scholar 
in Germany. The significance of Lortz's lay in his desire to 
thoroughly understand the Reformer and the Reformation. Luther's 
quarrel was with Occamism, a philosophy created a double bind by 
stressing at the same time God's sovereignty and man's role in the 
process of salvation. This reaction along with Luther's religious 


subjectivism were major factors that contributed to the Reformation. 
Lortz offered a fair assessment of Luther that provided a foundation 
for ecumenical dialogue. 

On the eve of Vatican II, Thomas Sartory examined Luther from 
the psychological, theological, historical, and ecumenical 
perspectives. He concluded that both Catholics and Protestants 
should affirm Luther's evangelical message. 

Four hundred years separated Cochlaeus and Sartory. Catholic 
scholarship had come full circle. Luther, once the despised 
destroyer of Christendom, was finally received by a select group of 
Church thinkers as a true reformer. 



1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther 
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), p. 114. 

2. Ibid., pp. 114-15, Letter to Frederick the Wise, July 8, 

3. John Sheering, "Canonize Martin Luther?" The Cathol ic 
World . 197 (May, 1963), pp. 84-85. 

4. Johann Cochlaeus, Commentaria de actis et scnptis Martini 
Lutheri Saxonis chronographice ex ordine ab anno Domini 1 517 usque as 
annu m 1546 inclusive fieliter conscnpta . [Commentary on the Acts of 
Martin Luther of Saxony]. (Mainz, 1549). 

5. Leonard Swidler, "Reformation Scholarship in Germany," 
Journal of Ecumenical Studies 2 (1965), p. 198. 

6. Ibid. , p. 198. 

7. Ibid. 

8. Fred W. Meuser, "The Changing Catholic View of Luther," in 
Inter preting Luther's Legacy , ed . Fred W. Meuser and Stanley D. 
Schneider (Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969), p. 54. 

9. Ibid. , p. 41 . 

10. Johann Pistonus, Anat o miae Lutheri [Anatomy of Luther]. 
II vols. (Coin, A. Quentel , 1595-98). 

11. Gordon Grupp, Th e Righteousness of God (London: Hodder and 
Stoughton, 1953), p. 20. 

12. Ibid. 

13. Meuser, "Changing Views," p. 41. 

14. Ibid. 

15. Norman Scheid, "Conrad Vetter." Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 
(New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1912, p. 394. 

16. Ibid. 

17. Patncius Schlager, "Johann Nikolaus Weislinger," Catholic 
Encyclopedia, 15, p. 577. 

18. John Alfred Faulkner, "Luther and his Latest Critic' The 
American Jo urnal of Theology , 9 (1905), p . 360 . 


19. Johann Adam Mohler, Symbol ik: order. Darstellung der 
doqmatischen Gegensatze der Katholiken und Protestanten. nach ihren 
offentlichen Bekenntnisschrif ten (Mainz: F. Kuperferberg, 1832). 

20. Faulkner, Latest Critic , p. 360, 
21 . Ibid. , pp. 360-362. 

22. Ibid., p. 361. When one considers the slanderous twentieth 
century critiques of Denifle and Grisar, Faulkner's statement may be 
too strong. 

23. Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dol linger, Die Ref formation : ihre 
innere Entwicklung und ihre Wirkugen im Umfange des Luthenschen 
Bekenntnisses (Regensburg: G.J. Manz, 1846-48). 

24. Walther von Lowwenich, Modern Catholicism , Eng. trans. 
Reginald H. Fuller (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1959, p. 268. 

25. Ibid. 

26. Faulkner, "Latest Critic," p. 361. Johann Christian 
Hofmann points out the weakness of Dollinger's argument, and 
demonstrates how the same type of argument could be used to discredit 
the aoostle Paul. See Hofmann, Paul: Eine Dol 1 ingersche Skizze 

( 1890) . 

27. von Loewenich, Modern Catholicism , p. 268. 

28. Johannes Janssed, Geschicte des deutschen Volkes seit dem 
Ausqanq des Mittelater s. [History of the German People since the End 
of the Middle Ages]. (Freiburg: Herder, 1806-88). 

29. Rupp, Ri qhteousness , p. 22. 

30. Ibid, p. 269. 

31. Faulkner, "Latest Critic," p. 361. 

32. Heinnch S. Denifle, Luther und Luthertum in der ersten 
Entwickelunq: quel 1 enmassi g darg estellt [Luther and Luthernism in 
its Early Development Based Upon Original Sources], II vols. 
(Mainz: F. Kirchheim, 1904-05). 

33. Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics , Ecumenical 
Studies in History, no. 7 (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1967), p. 13. 

34. Rupp, Righteousness , pp. 22-23. 

35. Ibid., p. 23. 

36. von Loewenwich, Modern Catholicism , p. 270. 


37. Edward Andrew Harvey, "Martin Luther in the estimate of 
Modern Historians ,"• T he American Journal of Theology , vol. XIII (July 
1918) , p. 331 . 

38,- ^Stauffer, Cathol ics , p. 14. 

39. von Loewenich, Modern Catholicism , p. 270. 

40. Ibid. 

41. Stauffer, Cathol ics . p. 13. 

42. von Loewenich, Mode rn Catholicism , p. 270. 

43. Meuser, "Changing Views," p. 42. 

44. Faulkner, Latest Critic , p. 346. 

45. Luther , III vols. ( Frei bourg- im-Brei sgau : 1911-12). 

46. von Loewenich, Modern Catholicism , p. 270. 

47. Ibid., p. 271. 

48. Stauffer, Cathol ics , p. 16. 

49. Meuser, "Changing Views," p. 42. 

50. Harvey, "Modern Historians," p. 333. 

51. Ibid., p. 337. 

52. von Loewenich, Modern Catholicism , p. 270. 

53. Grupp, Righteo usness, p. 25. 

54. Stauffer, Cathol ics , p. 16. 

55. Frances Xavier Kief 1 , "Martin Luthers religiose Psyche als 
Wurzel eines neuen phi losophi schen Weltbildes ["Martin Luther's 
Religious Psyche as the Root of a New Philosophical Order"]. 
Hochland . 15 (October 1917 - March 1918), pp. 7-28. 

56. von Loewenich, Modern Catholicism , p. 276. 

57. Ibid. 

58. Alfred von Martin, ed., Luther in okumenischer Sicht [An 
Ecumenical View of Luther] (Stuttgart: Fr. Frommanns Verlag, 1929. 

59. Ibid., pp. 9-19. ["Good Points in Luther and Ban Points in 
his Cri tics" ] . 


60. Ibid., p. 11. "Er musste vielmehr als der grosste 
Wundertater der Geschichte erscheinen, wenn er den Massenabfall von 
diner bluhender, auf der Hohe ihrer Aufgabe stehenden Kirche 
zustandegebracht hatte." 

61. Ibid., pp. 68-79. ["Did Luther break with the Church or did 
the Church break with Luther?"]. 

62. Ibid., pp. 186-94. ["What Luther has to say to the whole of 
Christendom as a Man of Prayer"]. 

63. Ibid. , p. 94. 

64. Hubert Jedin, Die Erforschung der kirchlichen 
Reformationqeschichte seit 1876 [The Investigation of the 
Ecclesiastical History of the Reformation since 1876] Munster in 
Westfalen: Aschendorff, 1931). 

65. Stauffer, Catho! ics , p. 39. 

66. Meuser, "Changing Views," p. 46. 

67. Joseph Lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland , II vols. 
(Freiburg: Herder, 1939-40), Eng. trans. Ronald Walls, The 
Reformation in Germany , II vols. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968) 
English translation quoted. 

68. von Loewenich, Catho 1 icism , pp. 282-83. 

69. Stauffer, Cathol ics , p. 42; also see von Loewenich, Modern 
Cathol icism , p. 287. 

70. Adolf Herte, Das katholische Lutherbild im Bann der 
Lutherkommentare des Cochlaus [The Catholic View of Luther in the 
Scope of the Commentary of Cochlaus] III vols. (Munster in Westfalen: 

Aschendorff, 1943). 

71. Johann Hessen, Luther in katolischer Sicht [A Catholic View 
of Luther] (Bonn, 1949). 

72. Ibid., p. 9. "Wenn es richtig ist, was der protestanti sche 
Theologe K. Sell sagt, dass "das Prinzip des Protestantism im Grunde 
die Person Martin Luthers "ist, die Verstandigung uber Luther sien. 
Sie erscheint dann geradezu als der Weg zur Una Sancta." 

73. Thomas Sartory, 'Martin Luther in katholischer Sicht," Una 
Sancta . 16 (March, 1961), pp. 38-54. 

74. Ibid., p. 42. "Luther die Wirklichkeit des zornigen und 
erbarmenden Gottes in seinem Leben erfahren hat . . . Risse und 
Sprunge bekommt." 


75. Ibid., pp. 45-46, "die Tur cum Gesprach nicht endgultig 
zuzuschlagen. " 

76. Ibid., p. 48, "Wahrscheinl ich wurde Luther sich in Grabe 
herumdrehen, wenn er horte, er sei Verchter eines Subjekti vismus 
order einer ' Gewi ssensrel i gion , ' in der der Mensch moralisch 
autonom. " 



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